If you needed evidence that our region has entered a new phase, you should refer to the seminar which recently took place on the sidelines of the Davos World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. A session was held and attended by everybody from Abdelilah Benkirane of Morocco, Hamadi Jebali of Tunisia, as well as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa of Egypt. All the aforementioned gentlemen – with the exception of Moussa – have replaced personalities like Gamal Mubarak and Youssef Boutros Ghali who, among others, were the stars of the previous period, and what was known as the forum for the global political and economic elite. “Davos Man” was a term used to describe the wealthy educated elite, concerned with capitalism and market economies. But this picture has been changed today with the arrival of a new cluster of guests, some of whom are ex-prison inmates who, until very recently, were disregarded as activists in extremist and hardline religious parties.
What most caught my attention was the final comment made by Benkirane, offering a chance to the revolutionary youth in the region to contribute towards changing themselves. He added that he, in addition to others, were dissidents and opponents in their youth, and that were it not the political opportunities they were granted, they wouldn’t have changed their political stances. He suspected that the new generation in the region will surely transform from hard-liners into moderates if they are granted the opportunity to be represented there, that is, in Davos.
Benkirane’s words are unquestionably significant. He believes that the region will change for the better and that the opposition trend – or the revolutionaries – will themselves have to change and positively adapt to their surroundings if they are given the opportunity to rule and say what they want. But could this really happen?
Last week, a number of Saudi youths took the initiative of boycotting the social networking site Twitter, in response to the website’s announcement of its intention to change rules and laws of usage to allow governments to implement intellectual property laws and enforce court rulings on what is being posted, whether relating to individuals or governments. The boycott campaign resembles others mounted by internet sites against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill put before the US Congress, in order to counter commercial piracy on the internet and to be able to call activists on social networking sites to account. It is interesting that there is currently no legal deterrence, except in very exceptional cases, to protect individuals and organizations against legal transgressions on the internet.
It goes without saying that after more than a decade since the emergence of social networking sites and internet forums, followed by the rise of specialized sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, new methods for exchanging ideas, concepts and values across the region have been established. At first, these new methods seemed magnificent because they enabled people to interact anywhere and at any time. These methods facilitated the spread of information and the voice of the individual. However this is something that did not prevent the occurrence of some negative aspects; the circulation of malignant ideas, and even the promotion of indoctrinating visions that spread ignorance. We all remember how terrorist groups managed to use the internet to recruit dozens of suicide bombers over the past decade, and how our region fell victim to the forces of evil and hatred.
Today our region is definitely undergoing a change for the better. Arab youth on social networking sites today are now more engaged with political issues, and a fairly large proportion of Arab youth are also directly concerned with discussing social and economic issues. This is an important and positive side to the issue, compared to how things were in the past. But there is a negative side as well, which is a natural by-product of our new media, and that is the spread or aggravation of rumormongering in an unprecedented manner. In the past, a rumor would circulate from one person to another through direct conversation or over the phone, but with the advent of social networking sites, rumors fly around in sound and video via the click of a button.
The events of the “Arab Spring” have clearly imposed a transformation in the ability of some Arab societies to keep abreast with or accept what is happens inside the country or abroad. Perhaps the most important transformation was the ability of the Arab Spring to shatter illusions, including the perceived limitations of an individuals’ capacity to change their reality, and the belief that the most any passionate activist could do was to tackle some inconsequential welfare issue. In reality, the Arab Spring has exposed the limited ability of the elite to change their surrounding circumstances, or to influence the course of events around them. In other words, the social networking sites revolution has not only succeeded in presenting methods of communication that were not available in the past, but it has also shown the extent of what an individual can do politically and socially.
Nevertheless, some online activists have found social networking sites to be an inexpensive vehicle for practicing what they believe to be “change”. Furthermore, some of them have set about slandering individuals and organizations under the pretext of freedom of expression. Some virtual podiums serve as a means to spread rumors and level accusations without evidence. The individuals on those sites have become heroes in their own eyes, who defend the general welfare and champion the ideals of the revolution through their online posts.
There is a glaring problem, naming the dichotomy between the real and the virtual world, and Arab as well as Western governments are partly responsible for this. In the beginning, these governments ignored what was happening on the internet where there were no restrictions or limitations on what a person could do. As time passed, individuals became capable of copying software, posting whatever material they wanted, or heralding whatever they believed in. Let us remember that, if it wasn’t for the September 11 attacks and all the subsequent terrorist operations across Europe and in many parts of the world, no legislation would have been introduced pertaining to what could or could not be broadcasted via the internet.
Today, concerted attempts are being made via the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill to redress this problem. If this bill is passed by the US Congress, Western governments shall embark upon drafting new laws regulating activity in the virtual world. Here, residents of the Middle East might find themselves in a fix. Western companies could halt their services in full or in part due to the lack of a legal environment to protect intellectual property rights there.
For example, in Turkey, and in response to a court order, the government has blocked some services provided by Google. In the US, according to the New York Times, federal authorities have closed down the “Megaupload” website, an online file hosting service, on charges of piracy and fraud.
Social networking sites are also seeking to change their terms of usage, not to please governments, but to gain access to long-time closed markets. For example, the Chinese website “Weibo” dwarfs its American rival Twitter in terms of the number of registered users. Recently, the Chinese daily “Global Times” wrote an important statement commenting upon Twitter’s decision to amend its laws. It said: “It is impossible to have boundless freedom, even on the Internet and even in countries that make freedom their main selling point.”
It is needless to say that Arab revolutionaries will not accept this change and will side with their liberal, leftist peers in the West, to defend the anarchy they call freedom. But, as ironic as it might seem, those same revolutionaries, who, until very recently, were active members in the anti-globalization movement, have now become more globalized than anyone else. The problem with some revolutionaries is that they seek to rebel for personal reasons or out of psychological flaws. They start their battle in opposition to a certain issue, and then issues change, just as everything does; until a day comes where none of these revolutionaries know why they began to revolt in the first place.